The earliest missionary editions

22 January 2013

As indicated in my last blog entry, we have a very fine collection of Protestant missionary material in Chinese, dating mostly from the first three quarters of the nineteenth century. Our collection consists mostly of tracts, of which we have over 1,300 different editions with many duplicates.

Our Chinese Bible collection is not as big as that of the Bible Society, which was transferred to Cambridge University Library when the Society sold its premises in central London and moved to Swindon in 1985. Nevertheless, it is significant, and we have copies of most of the landmark editions.

But we lacked a copy of the very first printed edition of Holy Scripture in Chinese, Lassar and Marshman’s gospels of Matthew and Mark printed at Serampore in 1810, and we also lacked a copy of the earliest known tract, which was written and printed by Robert Morrison in Canton in 1811.

Remarkably, during my time in the Bodleian I have had the opportunity to acquire copies of both these things, which I will now describe. But I’m not entirely satisfied with my findings so far, particularly with regard to their dating. This is rather disturbing, as both items must be reckoned among the most valuable in our Chinese missionary collection, and would certainly take pride of place in any exhibition of this material.

1. The tract.

I bought this from the now defunct booksellers Ad Orientem (St Leonard’s-on- Sea, Sussex) in 1982, and describe it thus in my catalogue:

[Canton?], [1810年代]
毛裝1冊(6頁) ; 19.9公分
By Robert Morrison
Front cover (title-page) inscribed “On the Salvation of Man”, and in a different hand “Wm. Jenks. May 16. 1829. From Mrs. Furness”
Sinica 2672

s01006 s01005

William Milne’s Restrospect of the first ten years of the Protestant Mission to China (Malacca, 1820, and digitised by the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin among others) contains a List of books written and printed by the members of the Ultra-Ganges missions (pp.267-287). Although this is an invaluable guide to the earliest Protestant publications in Chinese, and is in some respects very detailed (for example in giving the number of copies printed), it doesn’t say where the editions were printed, nor does it seem to be complete; it makes no mention for example of Lassar and Marshman’s gospels and Bible described below, and it omits at least one of Morrison’s tracts.

Sinica 2672 is listed under the works by “Dr. Morrison”, as “Tract on the redemption of the world, 8vo.” (p.268); here is an image of the entry:


I’m inclined to think that most of the dates mentioned refer to printings, and not editions, as it is scarcely credible that new blocks were cut for printing as few as 20 copies (in 1816). I think we are dealing with two sets of blocks only: the first cut in 1811, and the second in 1815, after the printing of 10,000 copies in 1814 had worn out the earlier blocks.

In the absence of an imprint, how are we to know the date of our copy? If Milne’s account is accurate, we should at least be able to identify it on the basis of size. But the terms “octavo” and “duodecimo” of course are not strictly applicable to Chinese books, and even in the west, are not as precise as the measurements in centimetres which we now use, as they are terms which relate to the size of a single large sheet, itself subject to variation. Most likely, Milne was simply pointing out that the later edition was smaller than the earlier one. Unfortunately, the size of our copy is what I would describe as “middling” for a tract of this kind – many are bigger, many are smaller.

I have found seven copies of the tract in the world’s libraries, none of them in East Asia: the Harvard-Yenching Library (two copies), the Australian National Library, the Bavarian State Library, Leiden University Library, Glasgow University Library, and our own library, the Bodleian. None of these copies has an imprint, and the cataloguers have only guessed their date, but they clearly fall into two groups:

24/25cm. 4 leaves. 7行20字. (Harvard, Australia, Glasgow).
19cm. 6 leaves. 5行20字. (Harvard, Bavaria, Leiden, Oxford).

I have photocopies of both the Harvard copies, and the Australian copy has been digitised. The larger Harvard copy is from the same blocks as the Australian copy, and the smaller one is from the same blocks as ours, supporting my belief that only two editions were made. The question is, which is which? Were the blocks recut in smaller format, so that 6 leaves were required rather than 4, or in bigger format, so that only 4 leaves were required rather than 6? Milne’s information cannot be correct, as he lists the larger octavo edition as having 6 leaves – it is the reverse of what the surviving copies suggest. And the picture is further confused by the number of copies printed – over 10,000 in the case of the earlier edition, but fewer than 2,000 in the case of the later one.

Wylie (Memorials, 4) lists only one edition (“6 leaves, Canton, 1811”), which does not get us any further forward. I have therefore hedged my bets in the catalogue by giving the date of our edition as 「1810年代」- “the 1810s”.

2. The scripture.

This is more straightforward to explain: we have the gospels of Matthew and Mark translated by Joshua Marshman and his teacher, the Chinese-born Armenian Joannes Lassar. The two parts were originally printed separately (from blocks), but are printed together in the Bodleian copy.

[Serampore], [1810]
洋裝1冊(原線裝3冊, [95], [56]頁) ; 24.7公分
Tr. by J Lassar & J Marshman
Sinica 4020

There are two copies of St Mark only in Regent’s Park College.

s01017 s01015

Not only is the calligraphic style of the printing rather odd, but so is the terminology used by the translators, who invented many characters to transcribe the sounds of proper names in the text, including the names of Matthew and Mark, as indicated above.

In the largest character dictionary that I know of, (中华字海, first published in 1994 and containing 85,568 characters), the first character in both names (𠲚) is given the pronunciation yi, but here it may have been independently created by Lassar and Marshman from 口 and 孖, which is pronounced ma in both Mandarin and Cantonese.

The character {口挑} is not yet encoded in Unicode, and the second element is pronounced tiao in Mandarin and tiu in Cantonese

The character 嘞 is pronounced lei in Mandarin, and laak in Cantonese.

It therefore seems clear that Lassar and Marshman were using the Cantonese rather than the Mandarin sound values for these characters to transcribe the names of the first two evangelists:

𠲚{口挑} matiu = Matthew
𠲚嘞 malaak = Mark

Marshman arrived in Serampore in October 1799, and began his study of Chinese in 1805, under Lassar. As he never set foot in China, the distinction of being the founder of the Protestant mission to China goes to Robert Morrison, who began his study of Chinese in London in 1806, and arrived in Canton in September 1807. He produced a translation of Acts which was printed from blocks in 1810, but slightly later than Lassar & Marshman’s gospels.

The Bible Society collection has copies not only of all these things, but also of several more partial translations by Marshman and Morrison in this initial period of activity. The first complete New Testament was produced by Robert Morrison and published at Canton in 1813 (Sinica 101), quickly followed by a second edition in smaller format in 1815 (N.T.Chin.e.1, Sinica 1296, and three later printings from the same blocks).

The first complete Bible was Lassar and Marshman’s version published serially in Serampore, starting with the Pentateuch in 1817, the whole Bible being completed in 1822 with the publication in that year of the New Testament and the Old Testament books Joshua-Esther; the Library has two impressions of the complete work (Bib.Chin.d.1 and Bib.Chin.d.8).

I bought our copy of Lassar & Marshman’s Matthew and Mark from Han-Shan Tang (London) in 2004. They had acquired it from Bristol Baptist College. Actually, that organisation was only ten minutes’ walk from the school I attended between 1961 and 1968. How strange that then, as now, I should be living in such close proximity to this book!

7 Responses to “The earliest missionary editions”

  1. Reblogged this on newcollegelibrarian and commented:
    Interesting blog entry on Protestant missionary material in Chinese by David Helliwell, Curator of Chinese Collections, Bodleian Library

  2. Marcin Says:

    HI, I have question about this book:

    It`s really holy bible in chinese from half XIX cent?


    • Marcin,

      Not quite the first half, if that’s what you mean!

      Your Bible was printed in Shanghai in 1858, and is an edition of the so-called “Delegates’ version”, which was first printed in 1854.


  3. Marcin Says:

    Thank you very much for your help. Where I should look for find more information about this edition (www sites, professional books?)
    History of Chinese Bible is very interesting, so I wish learn more about this.

    • Marcin Says:

      I already found some books & sites. Hope to read more your interesting blog articles in future.

  4. Good write-up. I certainly love this website.
    Stick with it!

  5. Sophia Says:

    Thanks for your information. I was investigating about Joannes Lassar and found your notes. Great information!! I wish to have Lassar’s Bible. He completed his translation Mattew in 1807 and his hand writing was sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Lambeth Library.
    I am eager to see it. But probably not many different from 1810-wood cutted printing.

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